Fractal Myth

Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Sybil : Pure Women?

[Michelle Chapman ©1999]

An essay exploring ideas of purity and feminism in Victorian literature.

This essay looks at the characterisation of Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil(1) and Thomas Hardy's Tess(2), showing how they support or subvert notions of the 'Pure Woman'. Gillian Beer suggests that "[b]ecause women must accommodate themselves to men's values if they are to be selected in the marriage market and achieve their expected status as wives and mothers, the bearers of the dominant culture, women represent a critique of that culture."(3) This special position of women is confirmed by Elizabeth Ermath, who states that "The condition of women in the nineteenth century is a litmus test of the idea that society is a self-sustaining and inclusive entity, and consequently their condition rivets public attention."(4) In Sybil and Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Disraeli and Hardy present their heroines against an almost Shakespearian(5) background of conflict involving parents, 'usurpers', and a 'rightful king', all vying to possess their version of the Pure Woman. The reader must judge the heroine's purity, based on her behaviour in each relationship, and the society's purity, based on the external circumstances which forcibly modify that behaviour.

In the critique of Victorian culture that Sybil and Tess represent, the concept of virginity as an essential quality of the Pure Woman is examined and discarded. The 'loss' of a maid's virginity implies carelessness, and in both novels, this carelessness is demonstrably that of society, and the maid's parents. Ideally, parents provide a protective environment for their children, teaching them the skills they need to survive. Individually, however, they are shown to chase political or economic gain at the cost of their child's happiness.

Sybil's father, Walter Gerard, appears well aware of the responsibilities of parenthood. Proud of his daughter, he really listens to what she wants, appearing to want only what is best for her in an uncertain society.

'She hankers after the cloister. She has passed a still, sweet life in the convent here; the Superior is the sister of my employer and a very saint on earth; and Sybil knows nothing of the real world except its sufferings. No matter', he added more cheerfully; 'I would not have her take the veil rashly, but, if I lose her, it may be for the best. For the married life of a woman of our class, in the present condition of our country, is a lease of woe,' he added, shaking his head, 'slaves, and the slaves of slaves! Even woman's spirit cannot stand against it; and it can bear up against more than we can master.'[Sybil p.135]

Walter Gerard provides an ideal home environment, first encouraging Sybil's convent education, then establishing her in a comfortable cottage, with Harold "the fiery and faithful bloodhound"(Sybil p.168) as her guardian. Living together harmoniously, Sybil's individual beliefs are respected and honoured. As a Pure Woman, she defends her values by arguing honestly with her father, gently correcting his excesses.

'Yet with the shuttle and the spindle we may redeem our race,' said Sybil with animation, 'if we could only form the minds that move those peaceful weapons. Oh! my father, I will believe that moral power is irresistible, or where are we to look for hope?'(Sybil p.169)

Sybil's wishes for the future identify her as a Pure Woman. She desires only to work for the benefit of others! Already known for her charity, Sybil would sacrifice all she has (and more) for the People, without thought of personal gain.

'You must regain our lands for us, Stephen,' said the Religious; 'promise me, my father, that I shall raise a holy house for pious women, if ever that hap.' (Sybil p.82)

The danger to the Pure Woman's virginity comes when her parent's socio-political circumstances force her outside the home environment. In Sybil's case, only her father's direct need could bring her to London : "I could not leave my father at such a moment. He appealed to me; and I am here."(Sybil p.233). Despite her devotion, Sybil must express disapproval of Gerard's violent political involvements. Walter Gerard's uncharacteristically cruel rejection of Sybil's advice, "Nor will I be deterred from my purpose by the tears of a girl"(Sybil p.298), furthers his political objectives at the expense of Sybil's safety.

'Here we are,' said the man; and he pushed the door open, inviting Sybil to enter. ... but while she faltered, an inner door was violently thrown open, and Sybil moving aside, two girls, still beautiful in spite of gin and paint, stepped into the street.
'This cannot be the house,' exclaimed Sybil, starting back, overwhelmed with shame and terror. 'Holy Virgin, aid me!'(Sybil p.315)

There, but for the grace of God, goes Sybil, with all her pure womanhood. Would any reader judge her to be at fault?

The same values are apparent in Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Hardy's subtitling of Tess as a Pure Woman "was disputed more than anything else in the book."(6) A comparison of Tess with Sybil, however, shows that she, too, consistently behaves as a Pure Woman, and like Sybil, she is betrayed by her parents' socio-political ambitions.

In contrast to Walter Gerard, Tess Durbeyfield's parents hope to gain economic advantage from their aristocratic connections. Although they love Tess, they are unable to sympathise with her ideals as a Pure Woman. They believe themselves to be purely utilitarian, for no-one is hurt, and everybody gains.

'I'll tell 'ee what 'tis, Durbeyfield,' said she exultingly; 'he'll never have the heart not to love her. But whatever you do, don't zay too much to Tess of his fancy for her, and this chance she has got. She is such an odd maid that it mid zet her against him, or against going there even now. If all goes well, I shall certainly be for making some return to that pa'son at Stagfoot Lane for telling us - dear, good man!'(Tess p.79)

As the above passage suggests, Tess is an active participant in her home discourse, defending her own values and counteracting her parents' bad example. Like Sybil, Tess is prepared to honestly criticise her parents for their own good.

'O my God! Go to a public-house to get up his strength! And you as well agreed as he, mother!' (Tess p.49)

Nevertheless, Tess will always sacrifice herself to help her family. As a Pure Woman, her plans for her future are like Sybil's. She, too, dreams of helping the People. "She had hoped to be a teacher at the school, but the fates seemed to decide otherwise."(Tess p.77) Tess is certainly not afraid of hard work, but that is not what Alec d'Urberville is offering. "I killed the old horse, and I suppose I ought to do something to get ye a new one. But - but - I don't quite like Mr d'Urberville being there!" (Tess p.76) She is eventually forced from the relative safety of home by a combination of her own guilt over Prince's death, and the emotional blackmail poured out by those closest to her.

'Tess won't go-o-o and be made a la-a-dy of! - no, she says she wo-o-on't!' they wailed, with square mouths. 'And we shan't have a nice new horse, and lots o' golden money to buy fairlings! And Tess won't look pretty in her best cloze no mo-o-ore!'
Her mother chimed in to the same tune : a certain way she had of making the labours in the house seem heavier than they were by prolonging them indefinitely, also weighed in the argument. Her father alone preserved an attitude of neutrality.
'I will go,' said Tess at last. (Tess p.76)

With such forces arrayed against her, Tess marches bravely forth to meet the unknown. Unlike Sybil, she will not return unscathed. "An immeasurable social chasm was to divide our heroine's personality thereafter from that previous self of hers" (Tess p.108). In her comments to Joan Durbeyfield, who blames her for not capitalising on her situation, Tess expresses her bemused sense of betrayal.

'You ought to have been more careful if you didn't mean to get him to make you his wife!'
'O mother, my mother!' cried the agonized girl, turning passionately upon her parent as if her poor heart would break. 'How could I be expected to know? I was a child when I left this house four months ago. Why didn't you tell me there was danger in men-folk?' (Tess p.117)

Anyone who feels that involuntary loss of virginity disqualifies one as a Pure Women should consider the role of the maid's parents, and the place in Victorian society of rogue males "who vulgarise and desecrate these holy haunts; ... smoking tobacco in the palace of the rose!"(Sybil p.288), a description exactly fitting Alec d'Urberville! Tess, the Ruined Maid, shows the impact of such forces on the individual Pure Woman, while Sybil, in her symbolic identification with the Ruined Abbey, demonstrates the effects of such carelessness on the condition of England. A Pure Women does not 'lose' her virginity. It is taken from her when the social structures designed to protect her prove inadequate. For England to survive, Englishmen must stop misappropriating their national treasures.

The primary threat to a Pure Woman, denied her parents' protection, are manipulative males, whom I call 'usurpers'. Commonly connected to 'rightful inheritance' plots, usurpers "create a desire for the restoration of the legitimate heirs, for reattaching title and name to the proper signifieds."(7) Usurpers present a physical and emotional threat to a Pure Woman. Alternately persuasive and violent, they must possess her to satisfy their own desires. Although they recognise the Pure Woman as an individual, this only makes her more of a challenge, not a fellow human being deserving of respect. In contrast, the Pure Woman never loses sight of the usurper's humanity, repulsing his advances with firm modesty, and appealing (uselessly) to his better nature.

Usurpers buzz around Disraeli's Sybil, like bees around a flower. The bored, aristocratic Mowbray house-guests are perhaps the least threatening, with their "speaking looks which they flattered themselves could not be misconstrued"(Sybil p.189). Sybil rejects their gallantries "with a cold reverence"(Sybil p.189). She asserts her independence quietly and with dignity, putting them in their place, despite their refusal to take no for an answer.

'Indeed', said Sybil, 'I never leave my home. I am one of the lower order, and live only among the lower order. I am here to-day merely for a few hours to pay an act of homage to a benefactor.'
'Well I shall come and fetch you,' said Lady Maud, covering her surprise and mortification by a jaunty air that would not confess defeat.
'And so shall I,' said Mr. Mountchesney.
'And so shall I,' whispered Lord Milford, lingering a little behind. (Sybil p.190)

Their world is not her world, and she is not tempted. However, meeting the de Mowbrays again under conditions of stress, she must admit that their efforts to be friendly are well-meant, if intrusive. As a Pure Woman, her honesty and sense of justice will not let her deny their common humanity, even though she believes them to be the People's oppressors.

It touched Sybil much, and she regretted the harsh thoughts that irresistible circumstances had forced her to cherish respecting persons who, now that she saw them in their domestic and unaffected hour, had apparently many qualities to conciliate and to charm. (Sybil p.404)

A greater threat to Sybil's personal integrity is Baptist Hatton, "a discoverer, inventor, framer, arranger of pedigrees."(Sybil p.237) Hatton, turned sexual usurper, is dangerous because of his practised, predatory intelligence. While the astute reader realises immediately that he is wrong for Sybil, for Harold would never tolerate Hatton's "Persian cat" (Sybil p.243), that remarkable canine judge of character remains in the countryside. Hatton presents considerable temptation, offering a charming personality and a wealth of culture, but Sybil never compromises her values, answering for all Hatton's wiles.

'But is your labour, their labour? said Sybil. 'Is yours that life of uncomplaining toil wherein there is so much of beauty and of goodness, that, by the fine maxim of our Church, it is held to include the force and efficacy of prayer?'(Sybil p.248)

Disraeli clearly explains that Hatton's motives for wanting Sybil have to do with her beauty, her pure blood, and the authenticity he would gain thereby : "Could I do more? ...achieve the secret ambition of my life? What if my son were to be Lord Valence?"(Sybil p.254). Hatton studies his intended prey, apparently recognising her qualities as a Pure Woman, and the fact that she has a right to a life undisturbed by his desires. He seems to agree with Walter Gerard's summation of his daughter's character.

'She wishes,' said Gerard, 'to take the veil and, I only oppose it for a time, that she may have some knowledge of life and a clear conception of what she is about to do. ... But to my mind, Sybil is right. She cannot look at marriage: no man that she could marry would be worthy of her.' (Sybil p.287)

However, Hatton is manipulative, and supremely confident. He remains in the background as a lurking shadow, plotting to restore Sybil's birthright, so he can snare the Pure Woman and keep her in a gilded cage. After all, "everything desirable must happen if a man had energy and watched circumstances."(Sybil p.367-8)

Stephen Morley is another usurper who lurks near Sybil, selfishly desiring to possess her. Having watched her grow up, Morley feels he should command Sybil's love. As a Pure Woman, however, Sybil cannot honestly admit even friendship for Morley without justifying her qualms of conscience.

'I think that is the real reason why I like Stephen; for otherwise he is always saying something with which I cannot agree, which I disapprove; and yet he is so good to my father!'(Sybil p.177)

Morley justifies Sybil's lack of faith in him by proving himself a false champion to the People. Compared to Walter Gerard, "the real friend and champion of the People"(Sybil p.414), Morley's goal is self-importance, and he is prepared to compromise his ideals to achieve renown. "If I had refused to be a leader, I should not have prevented the movement; I should only have secured my own insignificance."(Sybil p.250) This rings hollow beside Sybil's impassioned Pure Woman response to her father's speech, "my heart glowed with emotion; my eyes were suffused with tears;"(Sybil p.250).

Morley ultimately forfeits Sybil's friendship by ransoming her father's safety at the price of herself. Although she has compassion for his human emotion, Sybil argues against the inappropriateness of his timing. In response, Morley descends to blackmail tactics, leaving the Pure Woman shocked and disgusted by his treachery.

'I have read of something of this sort,' said Sybil, speaking in a murmuring tone, and looking round her with a wild expression, 'this bargaining of blood, and shall I call it love? But that was ever between the oppressors and the oppressed. This is the first time that a child of the people has been so assailed by one of her own class, and who exercises his power from the confidence which the sympathy of the sorrows alone caused. It is bitter; bitter for me and mine: but for you, pollution.' (Sybil p.306)

Morley thus joins Hatton as a sinister shadow threatening to usurp the Pure Woman's right to freely choose a worthy lifemate. Ironically, as Morley acknowledges with his dying breath, all his efforts as usurper eventually benefit Egremont, the rightful king of Sybil's heart.

'Our lives have been a struggle since we first met. Your star has controlled mine; and now I feel I have sacrificed life and fame, dying men prophesy, for your profit and honour. O Sybil!' (Sybil p.415)

Compared to Alec d'Urberville, Disraeli's usurpers are amateurs. Alec is an active predator, using any tactic to satisfy his desires. The fulfilment of desire is the governing principle of his life. Young, pretty and naive, Tess is doomed from the moment he sees her.

Tess Durbeyfield did not divine, as she innocently looked down at the roses in her bosom, that there beyond the blue narcotic haze was potentially the 'tragic mischief' of her drama. (Tess p.71)

Having usurped Tess's ancestral inheritance, Alec refuses to admit that Tess has an existence other than as the object of his desire. As a Pure Woman, Tess defends her self-integrity and individuality, resisting Alec's efforts to reify her. Although he can (and does) take what he wants physically, Tess's absolute denial of any emotional surrender stands as a continuing defiance of his masculinity.

'Why I did not despise you was on account of your being unsmirched in spite of all; you withdrew yourself from me so quickly and resolutely when you saw the situation; you did not remain at my pleasure; so there was one petticoat in the world for whom I had no contempt, and you are she.' (Tess p.370)

Like Morley, Alec d'Urberville finds what Tess cares most about, using it to weaken her resolve. "Tess, your father has a new cob to-day. ... don't you love me ever so little now?" (Tess p.106) He overwhelms her with his unwanted attentions, attacking strongly when she is most exhausted and defenceless. "How the little limbs tremble! You are as weak as a bled calf"(Tess p.382) Despite this harassment, Tess remains true to her nature as a Pure Woman. Like Sybil, she answers the usurper's arguments with spirit, honesty and personal integrity.

'Did it never strike your mind that what every woman says some women may feel?' ... 'I have said I will not take anything more from you, and I will not - I cannot! I should be your creature to go on doing that, and I won't.' (Tess p.112)

Alec is a practised seducer. He unrelentingly asserts his ownership of Tess, using social values against her. "But has not a sense of what is morally right and proper any weight with you?" (Tess p.364) It is obvious that such ideals have no weight with him, for none of Tess's appeals to his better nature have any lasting effect. "I am without defence, Alec! A good man's honour is in my keeping - think - be ashamed."(Tess p.371) Regardless of Tess's constant refusal of his assistance, Alec capitalises on her family's social misery, hounding her until finally Tess is cornered like the "beautiful white hart"(Tess p.40) of the forests of the Vale. Alec's brutal selfishness never spares Tess, confirming her Pure Woman's judgment that he is not her rightful king.

... he stepped across to her side and held her by the shoulders, so that she shook under his grasp. 'Remember, my lady, I was your master once! I will be your master again. If you are any man's wife you are mine!' (Tess p.379)

Hardy takes the relationship of Alec and Tess to its logical extremes, showing his heroine acting purely and unselfishly for the good of others, while the usurper is motivated by lust, and lacks concern for the Pure Woman's humanity. Hardy sustains our belief in Tess, allowing her to be seen simultaneously as a murderess, and as a Pure Woman. Alec's death at Tess's hands is inevitable. He tells us so himself. "Come, let there be peace. I'll never do it any more against your will. My life upon it now!" (Tess p.87) Tragically, his words foreshadow Tess's death as well.

'But I - thought you would be kind to me, and protect me, as my kinsman!'
'Kinsman be hanged! Now!'
'But I don't want anybody to kiss me, sir!' she implored, a big tear beginning to roll down her face, and the corners of her mouth trembling in her attempts not to cry. (Tess p.85)

Under immense emotional strain, beyond even her considerable endurance, Tess revenges all the Pure Women Alec has deflowered. Using an instrument of the patriarchy, "the carving knife"(Tess p.434), she penetrates his body, symbolically echoing his violation of her. "The wound was small, but the point of the blade had touched the heart of the victim."(Tess p.434)

The characterisation of Sybil and Tess as Pure Women is confirmed by their identification with the Queen of England. Queen Victoria, as we see from Disraeli's description, is the ideal made real.

Attended for a moment by her royal mother and the ladies of her court, who bow and then retire, Victoria ascends her throne; a girl, alone, and for the first time, amid an assemblage of men.
In a sweet and thrilling voice, and with a composed mien which indicates rather the absorbing sense of august duty than an absence of emotion, The Queen announces her accession to the throne of her ancestors, and her humble hope that divine Providence will guard over the fulfilment of her lofty trust. (Sybil p.40-41)

This passage parallels the structures against which Sybil and Tess are placed. The Pure Woman's parents leave her outside the familiar structure of the family home due to socio-political necessities. She finds herself in a place dominated by masculine powers, where she behaves modestly, intelligently and articulately, acknowledging her personal responsibility in the situation, and finally, naming a masculine partner (young Victoria chooses God) who will guide and support her. However, as both Disraeli and Hardy show, the queenly brilliance of a Pure Woman increases her vulnerability to usurping predators.

...presently, selecting a specially fine product of the 'British Queen' variety, he stood up and held it by the stem to her mouth.
'No - no!' she said quickly, putting her fingers between his hand and her lips. 'I would rather take it in my own hand.'
'Nonsense!' he insisted; and in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in.(Tess p.70)

The Pure Woman must, therefore, exercise discriminating wisdom in her choice of a husband, choosing a man who, despite human imperfections is also striving to be pure, and whom she believes loves and respects her as an individual. She fights her own romantic feelings, until she feels sure of the man's true qualities, and commitment. Then she enthrones him as rightful king of her heart. Our heroines are pure, but, importantly, they are not perfect. If they were perfect they would no longer be human.

Sybil's relationship with Egremont is a Pure Woman's fairytale. Her attraction to him grows slowly, as she spends time ascertaining that his behaviour is impeccable, and his values are compatible with hers.

'You feel deeply for the people!' said Egremont, looking at her earnestly.
Sybil returned him a glance expressive of some astonishment, and then said, 'And do you not? Your presence here assures me of it.'(Sybil p.123)

Egremont endeavours to convince Sybil, by gentle persuasion, that he is an individual, concerned with personal and public purity, but his efforts are in vain. Despite the temptation he represents, Sybil will sacrifice herself before compromising her values.

Egremont made one more effort to induce Sybil to consider his suit. He combated her views as to the importance to him of the sympathies of his family and of society; he detailed to her his hopes and plans for their future welfare; he dwelt with passionate eloquence on his abounding love. But, with a solemn sweetness, and as it were a tender inflexibility, the tears trickling down her soft cheek, and pressing his hand in both of hers, she subdued and put aside all his efforts.
'Believe me,' she said, 'the gulf is impassable.' (Sybil p.279)

Sybil's suspicion of Egremont is only removed when she sees him supporting the values they both profess, in the public arena. "I was reading your beautiful speech."(Sybil p.292) Under his influence, Sybil's perceptions about society mature until she can joyfully acknowledge (at least to herself) that her mind and heart are in agreement.

She recalled without an effort those tones of the morning, tones of tenderness, and yet of wisdom and considerate thought, that had sounded only for her welfare. Never had Egremont appeared to her in a light so subduing. He was what man should be to woman ever: gentle, and yet a guide. (Sybil p.300)

Egremont must continue to wait for his queen, for Sybil cannot abandon her duty to her father, simply because a new king has found a place in her heart. When Walter Gerard's political involvements compromise Sybil's safety it is Egremont who rescues her. He receives a partial reward but, honourably, does not take advantage of her gratitude.

Sybil found herself pressed to the throbbing heart of Egremont, nor shrinking from the embrace, which expressed the tenderness of his devoted love! (Sybil p.335)

Having personally tested Egremont's commitment to herself and the ideals she values, Sybil still is hesitant to entrust her life to a human partner. She consults with another Pure Woman, the Lady Superior of Mowbray convent, and receives confirmation of the wisdom of her choice.

'Yes it is the spirit that hovers over your life, Sybil; and in vain you would forget what haunts your heart. One not less gifted than he, as good, as gentle, as gracious, once too breathed in my ear the accents of joy. He was, like myself, the child of an old house, and Nature had invested him with every quality that can dazzle and can charm. But his heart was as pure, and his soul as lofty, as his intellect and frame were bright, - ' (Sybil p.363)

Given their complete compatibility, (and remembering Harold's approval) the reader waits for Egremont to wade through the usurpers, and rescue Sybil. In a fairytale conclusion, he arrives exactly when she has most need of him, when even the faithful Harold cannot keep her safe without Egremont's help.

One ruffian had grasped the arm of Sybil, another had clenched her garments, when an officer, covered with dust and gore, sabre in hand, jumped from the terrace, and hurried to the rescue. He cut down one man, thrust away another, and, placing his left arm round Sybil, he defended her with his sword, while Harold, now become furious, flew from man to man, and protected her on the other side. Her assailants were routed, they made a staggering flight! the officer turned round and pressed Sybil to his heart.
'We will never part again,' said Egremont.
'Never', murmured Sybil. (Sybil p.417)

Unlike Egremont, Angel Clare is a 'rightful king' who proves unequal to the trust his Pure Woman places in him. Angel's tragedy is that he cannot look beyond his appreciation of Tess's ideal purity, as a "fresh and virginal daughter of Nature"(Tess p.158), to see her as she really is. Tess is extremely disturbed when Angel reifies her, insisting absolutely on her own identity.

It was then, as has been said, that she impressed him most deeply. She was no longer the milkmaid, but a visionary essence of woman - a whole sex condensed into one typical form. He called her Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names half teasingly, which she did not like because she did not understand them.
'Call me Tess,' she would say askance; and he did.' (Tess p.170)

Tess appreciates Angel's self restraint, and his refusal to take advantage of the other milkmaids' romantic innocence. He displays a respect for their humanity which distinguishes him from the other men of her limited acquaintance.

Tess was woman enough to realise from their avowals to herself that Angel Clare had the honour of all the dairymaids in his keeping, and her perception of his care to avoid compromising the happiness of either in the least degree bred a tender respect in Tess for what she deemed, rightly or wrongly, the self-controlling sense of duty shown by him, a quality which she had never expected to find in one of the opposite sex, and in the absence of which more than one of the simple hearts who were his housemates might have gone weeping on her pilgrimage. (Tess p.180-181)

Unlike Alec, who never considers what impact the gratification of his desires will have on Tess, Angel recognises Tess's individual worth, as "a woman living her precious life - a life which, to herself who endured or enjoyed it, possessed as great a dimension as the life of the mightiest to himself" (Tess p.195). As their relationship develops, Angel analyses his feelings, looking at whether "the germs of staunch comradeship underlay the temporary emotion, or whether it were a sensuous joy in her form only, with no substratum of everlastingness."(Tess p.197) This sense of doubt contrasts with Tess's exhilaration "at the thought of going through the world with him as his own familiar friend"(Tess p.236).

Right until the moment of her confession, all Angel's actions seem to justify Tess's confidence in him. Even his inner contemplations suggest that he truly values Tess for herself, and intends to act responsibly towards her, though he struggles to appreciate the extent of this responsibility.

'Do I realize solemnly enough how utterly and irretrievably this little womanly thing is the creature of my good or bad faith and fortune? I think not. I think I could not, unless I were a woman myself. What I am in worldly estate, she is. What I become, she must become. What I cannot be, she cannot be. And shall I ever neglect her, or hurt her, or even forget to consider her? God forbid such a crime!' (Tess p.260)

In comparison, we have Tess's efforts to resist Angel's proposals, out of concern for him. Although she cannot deny her growing love for him, she tries to hide it valiantly, keeping him at arms length to the best of her ability. As a Pure Woman, Tess is determined to sacrifice her own happiness rather than wrong the innocent, but at the same time, her mother's advice forbids her disclosing her secret to Angel.

It was no mature woman with a long dark vista of intrigue behind her who was tormented thus; but a girl of simple life, not yet one-and-twenty, who had been caught during her days of immaturity like a bird in a springe. (Tess p.238)

Like Sybil with Egremont, Tess appreciates Angel's active intellect, and the new thoughts he introduces to her. Tess is intelligent and imaginative, but since leaving school she has had little opportunity to expand her mind. She enjoys Angel's lessons, "and being, though untrained, instinctively refined, her nature cried for his tutelary guidance".(Tess p.222) Tess's willingness to learn is one of her Pure Woman qualities, as it is the Pure Women who will pass knowledge on to the next generation.

The specific words of Tess's final acceptance of Angel demonstrate her honesty, her love for him, and her doubts about the future : "it is only your wanting me very much, and being hardly able to keep alive without me, whatever my offences, that would make me feel I ought to say I will."(Tess p.231) Her individual value as a Pure Woman is again confirmed by the narrator on Tess and Angel's wedding day.

Clare knew that she loved him - every curve of her form showed that - but he did not know at that time the full depth of her devotion, its single-mindedness , its meekness; what long-suffering it guaranteed, what honesty, what endurance, what good faith. (Tess p.255)

Despite the immensity of her joy, Tess cannot banish her prescience of disaster, and her words foreshadow those Angel will throw at her. "O my love, my love, why do I love you so! ... for she you love is not my real self, but one in my image; the one I might have been!"(Tess p.256) The reader is thus prepared to share Tess's pain when her free forgiveness of Angel's youthful indiscretion is followed by his absolute rejection of her.

'I thought, Angel, that you loved me - me, my very self! If it is I you do love, O how can it be that you look and speak so? It frightens me! Having begun to love you, I love you for ever - in all changes, in all disgraces, because you are yourself. I ask no more. Then how can you, O my husband, stop loving me?'
'I repeat, the woman I have been loving is not you.' (Tess p.271)

Angel's betrayal of Tess is specifically condemned by the narrator, who defends her by showing the biblical grounds for her purity. Tess is "essentially ... as deserving of the praise of King Lemuel as any other woman endowed with the same dislike of evil, her moral value having to be reckoned not by achievement but by tendency." (Tess p.309; my italics) However, Angel is made to suffer, and as a result he comes gradually to recognise Tess's true worth. His apology to her shows that he has learnt, finally, to value her individual purity. "I did not think rightly of you - I did not see you as you were!'(Tess p. 428)

United with her rightful king at last, Tess is allowed to experience a brief, romantic, golden age. The newly chastened Angel is startled by the strength of her love for him, and this time, instead of complaining that she does not fulfil his ideals, he tries to give her the love and comfort she desperately needs.

But anyhow, here was this deserted wife of his, this passionately-fond woman, clinging to him without a suspicion that he would be anything to her but a protector. He saw that for him to be otherwise was not, in her mind, within the region of the possible. Tenderness was absolutely dominant in Clare at last. He kissed her endlessly with his white lips, and held her hand, and said -
'I will not desert you! I will protect you by every means in my power, dearest love, whatever you may have done or not have done!'(Tess p.437)

Consistently behaving as a Pure Woman to the end, Tess's last wish is that Angel take care of her sister Liza Lu. In this way, Tess hopefully protects the next generation of young Pure Woman from sharing her fate. That is, if Angel remembers the lessons Tess has taught him.

Victorian societal ideologies push our heroines to strive for perfection, to become the Pure Ideal. The novels suggest, however, that this ideal is unnatural. Focussing on the perfect purity of the ideal blinds one to the particular purity of the individual. Human nature is imperfect, and will always seem inferior and unsatisfactory in comparison with the ideal. The individual Pure Woman, like Tess and Sybil, earns her title by remaining true to her self, cherishing her own humanity and the humanity of others. She is dutiful and loving to her parents, but she also acknowledges their faults, and holds herself largely responsible for the family's well-being. She believes in her right to control her own body, and resists the usurpation of this right to the best of her ability. Finally, she attempts to choose her husband wisely, in the hope that a freely given, mutual exchange of love will enhance the purity of both the wedded-lovers and their society. The 'Pure Woman' novels' message is that Victorian society must learn to reverse its value judgements.

So densely is the world thronged that any shifting of positions, even the best warranted advance, galls somebody's kibe. Such shiftings often begin in sentiment, and such sentiment sometimes begins in a novel.(8)

As J. Hillis Miller suggests, "to be led by a new 'sentiment' of human worth or meaning to call the 'impure' the 'pure' may lead to an overturning of the usual relations of possession and dominance in society."(9) Unless the individual is privileged over the ideal, a woman's worth will continue to depend on circumstances beyond her control, rather than her own behaviour. As a result, many a worthy Pure Woman will be wasted (like Tess) instead of going on in partnership with a worthy man (like Sybil and Egremont) to possibly change the condition of England for the better.


1. Disraeli, B., Sybil or The Two Nations, 1845, (The World Classics; ed. Smith, S.; O.U.P., 1981)
2. Hardy, T., Tess of the d'Urbervilles, A Pure Woman, 1891 (New Wessex Edition; ed. Furbank, P.; Macmillan London Ltd., 1974)
3. Beer, G., Darwin's Plots, p.220
4. Ermath, E., The English Novel in History, 1840-1895, p.184
5. Hardy's appeal to Shakespeare in his defence of Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Preface to the Fifth and Later Editions p.30-31) suggested this reading of the texts. However, any exploration of the ramifications of this connection could only be attempted in a much longer essay. For the present, I will leave the Shakespearean echoes to my reader's "own imaginative intuition".(Preface to the Fifth and Later Editions p.29)
6. Hardy, T., Preface to the Fifth and Later Editions, Tess, p.32
7. Gallagher, C., The Industrial Revolution and English Fiction, p.206
8. Hardy, T., Explanatory Note to the First Edition, November 1891, Tess, p.31
9. Hillis Miller, J., 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles : Repetition as Imminent Design' in Bloom, H. (ed.), Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles : Modern Critical Interpretations, p.83


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Marker's comments.

86% - A subtle, imaginative, independent argument, Michelle. I'd want to argue that Disraeli is less critical of Victorian stereotypes of 'purity' than is Hardy. But you certainly open up the notion of purity to consider the ways in which it is constituted and understood, and its component parts of sexual chastity, ethical choice and personal integrity, bringing the discussion nicely to focus on the Queen herself. That point exemplified the fresh and attentive textual readings that distinguish you as a reader, here, as they have done throughout our year's deliberations.

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